Feb. 10, 2010
By Michael Perry
It's one thing to talk about former Bearcat football and basketball players competing professionally in the NFL or NBA or overseas. That's not so uncommon and has been happening for close to 60 years.
But a former UC volleyball player competing professionally?
Uh, that's a rarity.
"I don't think any of my other players have gone overseas to play," said Reed Sunahara, in his 10th years as UC's volleyball coach. "I know that some have looked into it, but it didn't work out."
The exception is Bonita Wise.
She is currently playing professional volleyball in Finland. She previously played on teams in Austria, Croatia and Spain.
"I have enjoyed every experience that I have had overseas," Wise said in an email exchange from Finland. "Every year I learn something new about a different culture. Of course, there are some negative things, like not getting paid on time, or missing holidays at home. But for the most part it has been nothing but positive."
Let's backtrack for just a moment.
Wise came to UC from Riverside, Calif., and had a stellar college career. She was Conference USA Co-Freshman of the Year in 1999 and was all-league four straight years. Three times she was first-team all-conference and three times she was on the Conference USA All-tournament team.
She graduated in 2003 and ranks fifth in UC history in kills (1,534), sixth in career hitting percentage (.297), fifth in career block assists (431) and fourth in total blocks (498).
"Ever since I was a freshman in high school, I decided that I wanted to try and be a professional athlete," Wise said. "My dad played basketball overseas in the Philippines, so I kinda wanted to see if my sport can lead me in the same direction."
Said Sunahara: "The reason Bonita has had a successful professional volleyball career is that she is and was persistent. She wasn't afraid to take a chance in playing overseas. She played for a small salary at first and I think now she is doing OK for herself."
So, what's the path from UC to Finland been like?
We'll just let Wise tell you (if you love to travel, prepare to be jealous):
Team 1: "My first season I signed with VC Tirol in Innsbruck, Austria. My coach put the three foreigners (another American and a Czech) in German class. I also helped coach the junior team while I was there, so that helped my German. I liked it there, we made it to the playoffs, but the next season I wanted something new and better competition. The practices were easy, and I would rather have harder training sessions. Austria was fun, and I had a good time and still keep in touch with the coaches and the players."
Team 2: "Seasons two and three I played for OTP Banka Pula, in Pula, Croatia. Croatia is beautiful, and their culture is a bit different. But I loved it there. That is my second family. I always go back to visit after every season. We practiced twice a day with only one day off a week. The second season we placed third in Cup and third in the league, which was good. I was tired all the time, but it was worth it. I learned Croatian pretty quickly without classes, but it's not an easy language. It is a Slavic language, so I can understand Serbian, and a little Slovenian, Czech and Russian. I loved it there because the practices were challenging and I lived five minutes from some of the best beaches in Europe."
Team 3: "Last year I played in Lleida, Spain. I always wanted to play in Spain, and I finally had my chance. I really like Spanish culture. It is great, and there are a lot of things to do. I thought I would enjoy the siestas more, but they turned out to be a pain because all the stores would close for a few hours in the middle of the day, which was annoying. I took Spanish in high school, so I didn't have much trouble, but their Spanish is different from Latin America Spanish. I had three other girls from Argentina on my team and everybody else was from Spain. This was the first season that I didn't have another American, and the first time not everybody spoke basic English. In fact, surprisingly a lot of Spaniards don't speak English at all. Last year we made it to the finals of Superliga B and lost. If we won we would have moved up to Superliga A., I definitely would have played in Spain one more season, but almost every team has suffered due to their economic crisis, so we had trouble getting paid on time, and the full amount. This is the main risk you have to take when you play in Spain."
Team 4: "While I was waiting to get a call for this season, I had an opportunity to play in Maldives for their national tournament in October." (Note: Maldives is an island country in the Indian Ocean). "This culture was very different from European culture or any other culture I had been in. Normally, the one foreigner on a team was not American, due to the United States' relationship with the Islamic religion. So, I got to be the first American to play in the tournament. Everybody was really nice, and spoke good English. In the Muslim culture they would pray five times a day. They would even pause our matches if it was during one of the times. Some of my teammates chose to be fully covered, so they would play in sweatpants, long sleeves and their head dresses. I had to have my legs covered when I went to eat. We took first in the tournament, and I feel very lucky that I was able to go. Maldives was amazing. They have the best beaches I have ever seen - even better than Croatia."
Team 5: "I had decided to go to Finland while I was in Maldives, so I came straight here after the tournament was over - which brings me to Finland today. I don't like cold weather, which was the main reason I always passed up offers from Finland. However, everyone here gets paid on time. So I figured I'd take a chance and also try out Scandinavia. Finnish people are shy but very nice, and very smart. Everyone speaks excellent English. I forget I am in Finland until I walk outside and it is freezing - then I remember! I don't know any Finnish because my whole team is always speaking English, and the language is very difficult because the words are very long. Finnish people are all about sauna time. It's like winter wonderland up here, so I am going to try to do all things Finnish. Obviously I've had my sauna time and I went ice skating yesterday. Now all I have to do is ice dip in the lake, go ice fishing, skiing and start drinking one gallon of milk a day (Fins love milk), then you can consider me officially Finnish. Currently we are in first place, so things are good."
Sounds more like the Amazing Race than an athletic career.
Ready to board a plane yet?
Wise typically returns to the states for two weeks around Christmas and in her offseason, from May until August or September.
She knows now just how good she had it while at the University of Cincinnati. Players overseas don't have access to trainers the way they do in college. She also does not find practices quite as challenging as Sunahara's.
And the competition isn't always the best.
But there's no substitute for the experiences she's had all over the world.
"I have made really great friends and connections," Wise said. "I'm lucky because I always feel very blessed to be on every team; there hasn't been one player that I haven't liked. I'm godmother to a teammate's daughter in Croatia and am going back to a few weddings soon.
"Every year I say I will maybe play one more season. I have been saying this for three years. I like to try new things and new cultures. I've done the western and eastern parts of Europe and now Scandinavia.
I would love to play in Turkey or Greece, but they have trouble with pay to, so I might try to play in France."
Sounds like a plan.